Roundtable: Rice Takes Heat, Graduation Gap

Wednesday's topics include: Are critics of the Bush administration making Condoleezza Rice their punching bag? Plus: A look at the graduation gap between black men and black women. Guests: Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition; Jeff Obafemi Carr, host of the radio show Freestyle, and Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES and I'm Farai Chideya.

Today's Roundtable, Condoleezza in the hot seat and Al Gore 2008? Joining us today are Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, Laura Washington, Chicago Sun Times columnist, and Jeff Obafemi-Carr, host of the radio show "Freestyle." So thanks everybody and let's move on to Condi.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has dealt with criticism, of course, but now that Donald Rumsfeld is out of the picture, she has gotten criticized. She appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to explain President Bush's way forward in Iraq, and the debates have been very critical.

Now former secretary Madeleine Albright thinks Rice should reach out to nations we're in conflict with.

Ms. MADELEINE ALBRIGHT (Former U.S. Secretary of State): Talking to governments about hard problems is why diplomacy matters.

CHIDEYA: Meantime, Charles Kupchan with the Council on Foreign Relations says Condoleezza Rice is losing her mojo on Capitol Hill.

Dr. CHARLES KUPCHAN (Council on Foreign Relations): I think her star has fallen in part because the Iraq war has gone very badly and it's difficult to find any ray of light.

CHIDEYA: All right, Michael, my first time talking to you since I got back form southern Africa. I know you have an opinion.

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Coalition): Yes, I do. I will warn the affiliates, I'm going to use strong language. This is an age of bottom feeders, if I can use that word on NPR. You know, obviously, the bloom is off the rose of the Bush administration.

And there's a fickle press that has now turned on the Bush administration, where they had a love affair with them. And the trial of Scooter Libby is showing us a lot about the innards of this fickle press. It's what vice president Spiro Agnew used to call the nattering nabobs of negativism.

Yeah, so, Condi Rice - it was Donald Rumsfeld, now it's Condi Rice. The real target is George Bush. And Condi Rice was never a diplomat. Condi Rice never had a portfolio for diplomacy. We knew that going in. We knew that the U.N. ambassador didn't have that portfolio for diplomacy. This is an administration that doesn't believe in diplomacy. This is an administration that believes that it is the only super power, and it's going to use its might and its will to be the world policeman.

CHIDEYA: But Michael, let me just ask you a question. It sounds like you're critical of the administration, but you're also critical of the press. Who takes most of the blame?

Mr. MEYERS: Both. I think the press has not been doing its job. The press creates their heroes. And then when the thing goes bad, they tear them up and destroy them.

CHIDEYA: Laura you're…

Ms. LAURA WASHINGTON (Columnist, Chicago Sun Times): What?

CHIDEYA: …let me go to Laura. You're a columnist. So, are you a nattering nabob of negativism?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Hey, I'm not in Washington. I'm not in New York. When he's - when Michael's talking of the press, he's not talking about the real folks out in Chicago within the hinterlands. He's talking about those folks who know everything of Washington.

I think his analysis about the press is partially true. But the press is responding to this barrage, this piling on of attacks on Condi and company that are coming primarily from Democrats - not solely, but primarily from Democrats - and of course that is a political issue.

It seems like that she's become a punching bag for every presidential or would-be presidential candidate around right now. And with, you know, 15 or so, 20 or so folks like that, you can get bruised pretty badly.

So it's very popular politically. It's very popular among elected officials to beat up on the Bush administration. Condi is obviously the front person on it. I think part of the struggle for her - I would disagree with Michael that she didn't have the qualifications to be a diplomat.

Mr. MEYERS: Portfolio.

Ms. WASHINGTON: I think that the Bush - portfolio, same difference. I think that there's a lot of folks who come into that position who may did not have a lot of diplomatic experience. She was very seasoned and very skilled in international affairs.

I think, though, that she's lost her way partly because of her unflinching, unfailing loyalty to George Bush. At least Colin Powell had a good sense to get out when he was completely betrayed by the administration. Rice has been the most loyal, staunch Bush supporter since day one, and that is hurting her right now.

CHIDEYA: Jeff, there was a guy I met once in Scotland, Scottish dude, he told me a phrase that Scotch people apparently use when they're trying to just say I'm not worried about this. It's is this the face of concern? And so when you look at Condi, she's unflinching. She doesn't seem to have a concern. Is this really going to hurt her in the long run, or is this something that she can easily weather?

Mr. JEFF OBAFEMI-CARR (Host, "Freestyle"): I don't think she can weather. I think it's going to hurt her in the long run because she does have a concern, and it's been spoken out loud already. Her concern is George Bush. It's not necessarily diplomacy. And Ms. Rice, for years, in Rumsfeldian fashion has given off the energy that she can take the heat and almost welcoming it at times. She's proven herself to be a loyal shield to President Bush, and it seems she that would take blows, she would take bullets, she would take bludgeoning to protect him. What's hilarious also from across the aisle is that people like Joe Biden and Christopher Dodd and Hagel are laying on the criticism.

But of course we know that's to boost their campaign profile at the time and what's going on with them trying to get elected. But the question of foreign policy in U.S. diplomacy will play heavily in the choice of the people that are going who are going to make for the leadership of this country in the next administration.

Diplomacy is a key in the secretary of state's position; it's foundational. The question is not whether Ms. Rice is smart. It's not whether she can play the piano, whether she moved from Birmingham after the bombing of the church. It's can she administer a department that deals with diplomacy? Which is can we get along with the rest of the world? And I think that's always been in question from day one. And it's getting header, it's getting more and more play now because of what's going on in Iraq.

CHIDEYA: Laura, I'm going to turn to you on a different topic. Jeff brought up the whole issue of the presidential campaign. People perhaps taking shots of Condoleezza Rice because they need to buff their images up. And guess who's back? Al Gore.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Again.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. People trying to draft into run for president. He is now known for his documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." He says publicly that he'd rather fight global warming than fight for a spot in the 2008 presidential race. Do you believe that?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well I'm taking him at his word from the time being. This looks to me, as you've mentioned, there is some of his former political advisers are sort of pulling together an informal ad hoc draft campaign. This is some the things folks that he had said no to a while back. They're back at it again. So a lot of these folks are looking for a job in a presidential campaign. The jobs are getting snatched up very quickly, especially by the leading candidates like Clinton and Obama and Edwards. And so these folks are looking for a way into a campaign. I think Gore is ancient history. I hope he is really serious when he says he's going to stay of it.

I think he's become a lot like Jimmy Carter. He's better as a statesman than he would be as a president. He's done a lot for the environmental causes, for global warming. He's been an incredible spokesperson for that. Being nominated now for Nobel Prize. But as of the - I think after his loss of the presidency, which he basically won, I think his time has passed and he's ancient history.

CHIDEYA: Michael.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, I don't know if his time has passed, particularly when you look at what Jeff would called the posturing senators in the competition. I mean, Hillary Clinton, what has she ever done. John Edwards, all he can talk about is poverty, and he's rich. Barack Obama - he wants to change Washington. He's only been there a few years, if that. The posturing, ever posturing, insufferable Joe Biden.

I don't think Al Gore's day is over. I saw him on the Grammy Awards, however, the other night. And I must me tell you he looked retired. As well as well as bloated. Maybe it was the corporate living that he's making now, as opposed to his environmental concerns.

CHIDEYA: Now Michael, we don't criticize appearance on this show. I'm just kidding.

Mr. MEYERS: Of course, you would have to appearance because that's all what the media has focused on with presidential candidates these days. How they look, how they walk, if they ten walk. Of course, this is one of the things that I think we have to really focus on. Good question, Farai.

We have to look at the confrontation for office, the taste, the talents, the skill, the character, and not just the personality, not just the looks, not just the charm - or the way that the candidate purses his or her lips at an audience who have some of the easy question and says thank you for the question. We've got a get out of what an author calls the freak show. We've got to change the nature of the campaign and we need good candidates to do that. Al Gore is better than the rest of the lot.

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well, you know, Michael you mentioned that John Edwards and his wealth. Well, you know, his - Gore's people are saying that he's, because of these corporate positions that you referred to earlier, that he's probably got at least $50 million bucks on the side that he could spend out of his own money.

Mr. MEYERS: You mean, Al Gore.

Ms. WASHINGTON: So we're talking - if it gets back in - yeah Al Gore. I think he's back into this. He's not going to be the same Al Gore. He's going to be scrutinized in much the same way as, say, Rudy Giuliani would be. What have you been doing lately beyond rooting for the environment? You've been making a lot of money.

CHIDEYA: All right, well, before we move on to Jeff, let me just say to everybody who's tuning in - and in addition to for taking the physical attributes of the presidential candidates, this it NPR's NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya. And we've been talking to Laura Washington, Chicago Sun Times columnist, Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition, and Jeff Obafemi-Carr, host of the radio show "Freestyle."

Jeff, we've kind of wondered a bit from Al Gore in to all sorts of issues of pursing of lips and what's in the purse…

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: How people look and how they're wearing their hair, all of those little things they…

CHIDEYA: And how much money they got, so…

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: Yeah, and how much money they got, which sadly…

CHIDEYA: But I - you…

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: …does play into the politics of the American landscape sometimes.

CHIDEYA: Absolutely. Well, you know, Al Gore is a maybe, but John Edwards is a definite. Edwards is someone who was, of course, vice presidential candidate under Kerry, and now he's coming back again. Is there a bias against people who come back around another time? Some people seem to run for president every four years. Other people take a shot, and when they're done, they're done. How does Al Gore stack up in that whole equation?

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: I think Al, because he was popularly elected, is in a little bit of a different position. And I think what he's on now is a quest for real power, and he's hitting a stride now. President Bush could say he read a book by Michael Meyers, Farai Chideya, Laura Washington or yours truly, and America would say oh, that's nice. But let Oprah say the same thing, and all of us are on the New York Times list in a week. That's power - what I call the juice with the people index.

Al Gore wants the JWP index because it gives him options beyond just being a candidate - credibility, the power to influence the masses of people is social capital in the sense that he can eventually save that up and spend it. He can purchase anything from a seat on a high-profile board like Apple and Google, the boards he's on now. And yes, possibly even the presidency.

So I think he's been playing it smart by getting a couple of Oscar nods and getting awards and getting nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. He's putting himself in a position where people are starting to clamor for him to run. And he's being asked to run instead of looking ambitious himself. And that's a much better position to be in than the first time around.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, we will stay tuned on that front. But staying with the presidential race issue - and Jeff, staying with you - Barack Obama has gotten criticized because he is a Christian, but he lived in the Muslim country of Indonesia. Now, this is something that is just coming from some critics.

But the issue of religion in politics is absolutely huge. Former Governor Mitt Romney has faced questions about being a Mormon, Joe Lieberman addressed Jewish faith when he ran along Al Gore in 2000. Will America only elect a Christian who has, kind of, born into the Christian faith, raised in a Christian faith values, or is it time that we open up to some other understanding of the pluralistic nature of American society?

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: You know, I don't think it's an either or. I think it's both. I think that - to be honest, America will only, at this point in time, elect a person with a Christian background simply because of just the overwhelming kind of push that has come from the Christian right and people in the middle. They want family values and people in - believe it or not, they - or accept it or not - they have the notion that America, in the back of their mind, is a quote, end quote, "a Christian nation."

Is it time for us to open up? Of course, it's time. It's been time since 1776, or slightly before that, for us to open up to other faiths and to not be fixated on that. But I think the population has been fixated on that lately. I think Obama is smart enough to be able to handle that and to navigate his way through. He references his faith in the United Church of Christ. He also references his family a lot, and I think that that's going to buy a lot in terms of credibility for him - much more so than Mitt Romney.

I think when Mitt Romney gets on a national scale, there are a lot of people who are going to pull out some of the tenets of Mormonism - be it ancestral baptism or the Telestial and Celestial Kingdom - and they're going to really put that on the forefront. I don't think Obama has to worry about that as much. But, definitely, religion is an important part of politics, sadly.

CHIDEYA: Michael, what about the idea that these attacks really are coming from a place where people are speculating about Barack Obama's childhood as opposed to dealing with him as a grown man? Is that a form of prejudice in and of itself, or is it just part of the political debate?

Mr. MEYERS: That's exactly the word: prejudice. It is prejudice, unvarnished, plain and simple - straightforward prejudice. And Jeff just pushed up - pushed out of the presidential race, Mitt Romney, who's a Mormon, and I don't think that that's right. I don't think people really are going to vote on the basis or whether or not a person is a Christian.

If you present yourself in a straightforward way and intelligent way and you've got real ideas, you have values - as opposed to Christian values. If you have character, if you have strength of purpose or integrity of purpose, people listen to you. And I really don't care what religion Obama is. I don't really care - if she has a religion - what religion Hillary is. I'm not going to vote for her.

But, you know, we've moved away from the irrelevancy of one's religion as a qualification for office to an era of faith-based politics. I think that's dangerous in American society. But this is not a Christian society. And I saw Joe Lieberman, and so did the Anti-Defamation League. I thought Joe Lieberman wore his religion on his sleeve during his part of vice presidential campaign of 2000. And it was a deplorable wearing a religion on his sleeve.

So, no. I think this is just too, too much. I don't want to care about the good religion. Leave it to the church or the synagogue or wherever else you practice your religion. Don't practice it on me.

CHIDEYA: Laura, we've only got a little bit of time left, but is the question really between Christian versus non-Christian, or do you use religion in a campaign versus do you not?

Ms. WASHINGTON: Well I think you have to acknowledge who you are. As a candidate, Obama has been forthright about it. So has Lieberman. I think that there's more of an issue of separating the facts from the fiction. Remember when John F. Kennedy run in 1960 as a Catholic - first Catholic, people said that, you know, if he got an office, the pope was going to be running the White House. And that, of course, was ridiculous, and it didn't happen.

Ms. MEYERS: (unintelligible)

Ms. WASHINGTON: They're going to be missed, and presumptions are going to be made about Barack Obama because his middle name is Hussein. There are going to be assumptions be made about Mitt Romney because he's a member of the Mormon Church. And it's going to be on the candidates to talk about their religion and their heritage in a clear, accurate way, and force the media and force voters to hear that so that these myths and these misconceptions - these inaccurate misconceptions will not be taken into the polling places.

CHIDEYA: All right, Laura. Well, thanks so much. We've been talking to Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist at our Chicago bureau - Jeff Obafemi-Carr, host of the radio show "Freestyle" at Spotland Productions in Nashville, Tennessee, and also Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition from our New York bureau. Thank you, guys.

Mr. MEYERS: You're welcome.

Mr. OBAFEMI-CARR: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: And, as always, if you'd like to comment on any of topics you've heard on our Roundtable, you can just call us at 202-408-3330 - that's 202-408-3330. Or you can send us an e-mail. Log on to npr.org, click on Contact Us, and please be sure to tell us where you're writing from and how to pronounce your name. And next on NEWS & NOTES, one man says the Grammys weren't music to his ears, and a new book shows independent voices are fighting for air in America.

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